North Africa, West Asia

The shifting balance of identity politics after the Syrian uprising

An account of the drastic identity and narrative shifts during the Syrian uprising. The author focuses on the discourse of the Syrian regime, as well as those of anti- and pro-Assad Syrians. 

Ola Rifai
28 April 2014
'Syria is the mother of us all’ | Anti-polarization graphic by the 'Shadows for Syria' civil movement

'Syria is the mother of us all’ | Anti-polarization graphic by the 'Shadows for Syria' civil movementArabism, Syrianism and Islamism are the most longstanding and enduring components of the identity balance in Syria. For approximately sixty-five years, the balance of identities did not suffer any drastic shift. Although it was subjected to various alterations during the first two decades of Syria’s history, it enjoyed a relative degree of stability during the Assads’ tenure. However, the repercussions of the Syrian uprising have upset this equilibrium, and changed the balance of power among its components. This article sheds some light on the process of the overhaul of identity politics that was initiated by the Syrian uprising. The article focuses on the discourses of the Syrian regime, as well as those of anti- and pro-Assad Syrians. Mainly, the article’s assertions are based on fieldwork carried out by the author in Syria during the uprising.

A breakdown in the identity balance during the uprising?

Inspired by the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, the Syrian uprising broke out in March 2011. Although the uprising had its roots in a peaceful movement that strove for social justice, it rapidly turned into a vicious struggle for power among myriad groups, for whom identity served as a powerful weapon. One can argue that Arab identity initially played a role in motivating Syrians to take to the streets, since for four months they had been watching their fellow Arabs protesting against rulers of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Yet, the Syrian chapter of the Arab Spring seems to create a swerve in the balance of identities; in particular, Arab identity as a solid supra-national identity is waning at an exponential rate in proportion to the growth of Syrian and Islamic identities.

Shortly after the eruption of the uprising, the Syrian regime’s discourse emphasised Syria’s betrayal by the Arab states that had supported the rebellion, and portrayed these Arab states as outright enemies. Indeed, the official discourse intensified by the suspension of Syria’s membership in the Arab League in November 2011 was paralleled by the increase of anti-Assad rhetoric in some Arab states, namely Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Consequently, although Syria continued to promote itself as the protector of Arab interests in relation to the Israeli enemy, the discourse employed by the Syrian regime was intended to strengthen Syrian nationalism.

The discourse characterised the anti-Assad Arab states as khawna (‘traitors’) and as muta’miriyyn (‘conspirators’). Furthermore, it labelled the Arab League the 'Hebrew League'. The official discourse of the regime also relied heavily on the  use  of  nationalist terminology, such as  souriyyoun (‘Syrians’), al-uma al- souriyya (‘the Syrian nation’), al-syadda al-souriyya (‘Syrian sovereignty’) and al- irada al-souriyya (‘the Syrian will’). Additionally, myriad state-controlled radio stations such as Ninar FM and Sham FM initiated their news bulletin with phrases like huna souriyya (‘this is Syria’) or ‘ashat souriyya (‘Long live Syria’) Similarly, several promotional video-clips recalling Syrian history were repeatedly broadcast on state television channels. A prime example of such video-clips is entitled souriyya hikaya la tantahy (‘Syria, an endless story’)  which places an emphasis on national symbols, particularly the Syria’s flag and historical landmarks. Moreover, during the uprising, several songs were produced and broadcast in the State Media, all of which stressed Syrian nationalism and did not mention any features of Arabist ideology. One example is a song named Souriyya al-majd (‘Syria; the glory’), a brief extract of which runs:

“We are your sons Syria, our fathers and grandfathers [are Syrians], we sacrifice our blood for your soil Syria […] Syria; the glory”.

Interestingly, the video clip of this song - which was played continually on State TV Channels and circulated among Syrians on social media - explicitly indicates the change in the identity balance; it shows an umbrella in the colours of the Syrian flag, in the middle of which an Arabic word reads: ‘Syrian’. Beneath this umbrella, a piece of script reads: ‘Arab; Kurd; Druze; Christian; Sunni: Alawite: Ismaili: Shiite: Assyrian and Syriac’.   A second example is of a song by the prominent Syrian singer Mayada al-Hinnawi, entitled ya sham (‘Oh Damascus’). Explicitly, its lyrics and video-clip promote Syrian religious identities, as they focus  on  Islamic  and  Christian  symbolic  elements  (churches  and  the  cross; mosques and the Quran) alongside Syrian landmarks and images from folklore. There is not even a vague hint of anything surrounding the Arab identity. In this context, Syrian State TV launched a campaign dubbed tarykhuna (‘our history’), and a quiz programme entitled souriyya; tarykh w hadarah (‘Syria; a history and civilisation’). Both of these emphasise Syria’s modern history, national symbols and figures.

Paralleling this rhetoric of the regime, the discourse operating at the grassroots level expresses resentment towards the anti-Assad Arab states. This is indicated by many slogans that were chanted during pro-Assad rallies. Two examples are yly ma bysaf` amu qatariyya (‘you are a son of a Qatari if you do not clap’), and ya Arab ya khawana (‘oh you Arabs, you are traitors’).   These slogans were sung by cheerful pro-Assad protesters while waving the Syrian flag and raising pictures of Assad. When asked why he is against his fellow Arabs, one of these protesters yelled;

“Those traitors [referring to the anti-Assad Arab states] who we once dubbed as ‘sister states’, stabbed Syrians on the back; but we [Syrians] shall prevail”1.

Although cliques of the political opposition (represented by the Syrian National Council and later  by  the  Syrian National Coalition) and  the  military factions (represented by the Free Syrian Army and some Syrian Islamist militias) allied with certain Arab States - particularly Qatar and Saudi Arabia – the discourse of anti-Assad Syrians on the ground slammed Arab states for their failure to help Syrian rebels in ousting the Assad regime. Hence, these anti-Assad Syrians seemed to associate themselves less with the Arab identity; for them, the Arab states did not provide an adequate level of support. An anti-Assad Syrian summarised this perspective:

“Arab states are seeking to achieve realpolitik ends at the cost of our blood. They support particular factions [in Syria] that would serve their agendas, and they aim to prolong the conflict for their own ends. Al-uma al-Arabiya (‘the Arab nation’) failed us, and is watching the slaughter of Syrians”2.

This sentiment is reflected by a popular slogan that was frequently chanted during anti-Assad rallies: w ya Arab khazltuna (‘oh Arab, you let us down’).  Moreover, a popular motto, paradoxically displayed by both anti- and pro-Assad Syrians, runs: souriyya, ‘nabkkykiyy aw nabky aurobatuna ‘laty wallat (‘oh Syria, shall we cry over you or shall we cry over our Arabism that has faded away?’). Additionally, many cartoons and graphic novels criticizing Arabist ideology were circulated among Syrians in the online community. One eloquent example is of a comic that shows a man in a traditional Arab costume watching Arab Idol (a popular Arabic music competition) on television while turning his back to the news of violence in Syria being broadcast on a television behind him. A similar one mocks the prominent poem by Sati` al-Husri, the father of Arabist ideology. The original version of the poem says: ‘Arab countries are my motherland, from Damascus to Baghdad, from Najd (in Saudi Arabia) to Yemen, and from Egypt to Tetouan (in Morocco) ’. Sarcastically, the comic shows Smurfs saying: “they exiled us from Syria, they marginalised us in Lebanon, they froze us to death in Jordan, they besieged us in Iraq, they humiliated us in Egypt, and they did not welcome us in the Gulf! So now let all of us sing: ‘Arab countries how low are you!’ ”.

Thereafter,  the  discourse  used  by  various  anti-Assad  groups,  particularly  the secular ones, aimed to  strengthen Syrian nationalism by  emphasising national symbols such as the Syrian map and the Syrian (revolutionary) flag, while neglecting any association with the Arab identity. Indeed, the Syrian map on the revolutionary flag’s colours was the main symbol for many anti-Assad groups.

Furthermore, several civil movements, charitable networks and communication instruments adopted national names like Souriyyatna (‘our Syria’); a weekly magazine, Souriyya al-majd (‘Syria the glory’); a television station, Souriyyat ‘abr al-houdud (Syrian [females] across the borders’); a charitable network,  and the Free Syrian youth Coalition; a political movement. In parallel, activists operating on the ground usually voiced their support for Syrian nationalism. One traditional example is the slogan, al-sh’b al-souriyy wahid (‘Syrian people are one’), which was among the first slogans to be chanted by rebels on the ground.  Another articulate example is a banner that was raised during an anti-Assad rally in the suburbs of Damascus in April 2012. This banner displayed a message that read: eza kuna massehiyyn fa-munzu akthar mn 2000 ‘am, eza kuna muslmiyyn fa-munzu akthar men 1400 ‘am, wa lakiyynna souriyyn munzu akthar men 10000 ‘am (‘if we are Christians, we have been Christians for more than 2000 years; if  we are Muslims, we have been Muslims for more than1400 years, but we have been Syrians for more than 10,000 years’).

Running in parallel to this discourse that emphasises the Syrian identity is the rise of Islamic identity; in particular, the Sunni identity. Undoubtedly, since the beginning of the uprising, Sunni identity has been struggling for empowerment and has been attempting to assert itself over Arab nationalism and Syrian nationalism. However, one cannot view the Sunni identity as denoting a monolithic identity, since  the  reproduction  of  different  versions  of  the  Sunni  identity,  from  the moderate to the radical (Sufi, Salafi and Salafi-Jihadi identities, respectively) is a crucial feature of the Syrian uprising. Nevertheless, all of these trends are battling for a hegemonic place at the cost of the diminution of Arabism and Syrianism.

The escalation of violence and the domination of Islamist militias interact with the intimate involvement of members of the Sunni bloc (such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey) and the members of the ‘Shiite axis’ (Hezbollah, Iran and the Maliki government of Iraq). As a result, this led to the uprising being characterised as a Shiite versus Sunni holy war. This consequently allowed the Islamic identity to  prevail over  national and  supra-national ones.  Many slogans indicated this sectarian polarization, which resulted in the reinforcement of Sunni identity. A popular anti-Shiite slogan is: la iran w la hezballah bidna muslym ykhaf allah, (‘neither Iran nor Hezbollah, we want a Muslim who fears God)’. Another widespread motto is: ya allah ma ‘lna ghiyyrak ya allah (‘we have nobody but you God’). A final example is of a banner that was held during anti-Assad protests, and which was also circulated widely on the online community. It shows writing in Arabic that reads ya Arab (‘oh Arab’), whilst a pencil is erasing the letter ‘yn of the word ‘Arab’ and changing the meaning of the word to rab, meaning God.


Based on the above account, it can be asserted that, after the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, the power balance between Arabism, Syrianism and Islamism shifted rapidly. Each of these identities is vying for empowerment and hegemonic control. On the one hand, ‘everyday Arabism’ is declining due to the ‘everyday’ reproduction of State and Islamic identities. On the other hand, Syrian national identity is being reproduced as an inclusive identity for the secular and non- Muslim Syrians, while the Islamic identity flourishes as the dominant identity amongst the majority of anti-Assad Sunnis. Which of these identities has the necessary power to redress the balance? The outcome is yet to be seen.



1 Author’s interview with anonymous pro-Assad protester, Syria, 26/2/2012.
2 Author’s interview with an anonymous anti-Assad, Syria 5/9/2013.


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